IRVING, TEX. -- No matter how you slice it, the Washington Redskins are a mediocre team after 11 weeks. The inability to beat a winning team -- the Redskins have rarely done that since Super Bowl XXII -- is one thing. But to be threatened by the Lions and Cowboys is another.

It's not just that the Redskins have dropped to 6-5, and it's not just that they lost to the still-rebuilding Cowboys here on Thanksgiving. It's that the Redskins haven't passed a big test in nearly two seasons and now they can't even pass the not-so-big tests.

This is what the Redskins have done the last five weeks: lost to the Giants; allowed the Lions to score 38 points; been brought to their knees by the Eagles in Philly; whipped New Orleans after being threatened by Joe Gibbs; lost to the Cowboys.

Yes, the Dallas Cowboys are improved. Quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith are on the verge of stardom. Dallas won on the road against the Los Angeles Rams last week and that's impressive for an infant team, even if the Rams are on a steep slide.

But don't confuse the Cowboys with the Redskins. The Cowboys talk about being a couple of drafts away. We presumed the Redskins were ready to challenge for a championship this season. They aren't.

This was Gibbs's post-game evaluation of his team's 27-17 loss: "Outplayed and outcoached." Having said that, we are left wonder if the Redskins were ready to play the Cowboys, or the Eagles two weeks ago.

For a team with high aspirations, to be be outplayed and outcoached for the second time in three weeks, in November, with Miami (8-2), Chicago (9-1) and Buffalo (9-1) still on the schedule, is not a good sign.

At 6-5, the Redskins may still be in good shape for an NFC wild-card spot. But the Eagles can move ahead in that race Sunday with a victory over the Giants. The Packers will be 6-5 as soon as they dispose of Tampa Bay. The Vikings could be a game back after Sunday. The Cowboys, for heaven's sake, are only 1 1/2 back. Fortunately for the Redskins, the Colts and Pats(ies) remain on the schedule.

"We've got five games left, in the cold of RFK or New England or somewhere," defensive end Charles Mann said. "Those are the kinds of games we normally win. Hopefully, we can make our run now when it's really important."

Once again, the Redskins are groping for answers. One week they look great, just a step behind the Giants, 49ers, Bears and Bills. The next, they are fighting for their lives against the Lions. Gibbs has delivered his diatribe for the year, and it's effect lasted one game.

"We're kind of hit or miss in so many different ways right now and it's showing up week to week," he said.

Against the Cowboys, it was mostly miss. Mark Rypien completed 26 of 54 passes. The rushing attack produced 36 yards, the lowest total since Week 8 of last season. Anytime you lose, you're wide open for second-guessing, so here we go:

Why not give the ball to rookie Brian Mitchell? If there's so much concern about playing three games in 11 days, why make seven-year veteran Earnest Byner do all the work? Besides Kelvin Bryant, Mitchell, in his role as kick returner, was the team's best offensive weapon against the Cowboys. He's got speed, he seems always to make the right decisions on kick returns; let's see more of him than on fourth down or after somebody else scores.

The Redskins were quick to credit the Cowboys for being better, "by leaps and bounds," Gibbs said. Still, against the Cowboys the last three years, the Giants are 6-0, the Eagles are 5-0 and the Cardinals are 4-1. The Redskins are 3-3.

Also, the Cowboys came into this game ranked 23rd against the rush among 28 teams. Everybody has run against the Cowboys, except the Redskins. This is unlike the Hogs, who have to share in the blame again. Virtually every offensive series resulted in third and long. Three times in the last five weeks the Hogs have gotten beaten at the line, which just shouldn't happen considering the personnel.

A team that can't run the ball and can't stop the opponent from running it is in big trouble. The Cowboys were 25th in the league in rushing before the Redskins arrived, and dead last in the NFC. Yet, Smith ripped off 132 yards, including the 48-yard touchdown run which iced it.

There are five games left and the Redskins are capable of coming back and beating everybody left on the schedule. But they're coming dangerously close to being an underachieving team. Perhaps that's why the locker room was so quiet after this loss.

"Last year, toward the end of the year we were able to put together a good run," Rypien said. "But early on {in each of the last three seasons} we haven't been able to run off four or five games. . . . We're all frustrated because we're capable, but through breakdowns or whatever, we haven't." Part of the reason is that whoever is quarterback seems unable to have two good games in a row. Since the Redskins have better luck with relievers than starters, maybe Gibbs shouldn't announced his starting quarterback till after the game starts.

As the Redskins trotted off the Texas Stadium turf, the public address announcer told the departing sellout crowd, "Remember, ladies and gentlemen, the Dallas Cowboys have never lost to the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day."

Inside the dressing room, Gary Clark sat in solitude along one wall, still wearing his uniform pants, fingers running through his hair. He looked to be almost in a trance. Thirty feet away, fully dressed at his locker, Art Monk was in a similar ponderous state. Thanksgiving is done. It's time to separate the contenders from the pretenders.